Well. That came out of nowhere, didn't it? Who’d have thought that a Netflix Original 80s throwback would become the mega hit show it did? Certainly, it ran the risk of being lost in the glut of other Netflix-made shows (seriously, Netflix, slow down!), as they say, the cream rises to the top. And make no mistake, Stranger Things oozes quality from the top down.
But what is it that makes Stranger Things so great? It doesn't do anything especially new or groundbreaking - in fact, a huge chunk of the show’s appeal is trading on 80s nostalgia - and there's no strong hook that pulls the viewer in from the start (a boy goes missing in the woods has cliche scrawled all over it). I guarantee that if you're an avid fan trying to get a friend to watch and they ask you why they should, your response is usually “seriously, just watch it”, because to describe the synopsis of Stranger Things makes it sound quite boring. The odds were stacked against Stranger Things from the start.
But anyone who has completed the first season will tell you that it is indeed a huge success of a show. It beats all odds, and yet if you were to ask me or most fans why it's a success they probably can't tell you why. So let's take this Showcase to throw Stranger Things upside down and put it under lab surgery to dig out exactly what it is that makes it so good.
And what we find should encourage any would-be writer out there. Because Stranger Things works so well not from any clever concepts, big ticket set pieces or mind-bending plot twists, but from taking a straightforward story that's been told a thousand times and simply doing it well. Very, very well.
Because, despite what many will tell you, ideas are cheap. New writers horde their clever ideas and concepts for stories like they’re something precious, laboring under the assumption that they're rarefied artifacts, meal tickets to fame and fortune that others would steal in a heartbeat.
But the truth is that ideas are everywhere. For every novel in the bookstore there’s hundreds of thousands of ideas that get shelved, cannibalized, rejected or just plain forgotten. The famous mantra of “There's no more original ideas left in the world” is nonsense, serving to perpetuate this myth that finding an original idea is the equivalent of finding Atlantis. There's plenty of original ideas out there. If you were to sit down and concentrate for an hour you'd come up with at least one original idea for a story.
No, the saying should be “Original ideas are like pollen: they're everywhere, really, and you can reach out and grab them at anytime. But originality is not quality. Very few pollen will survive to grow into tall trees.” Doesn't roll off of the tongue as easily, granted, but it's true: while anyone can have an idea, the rarity comes in great ideas. If you're an experienced writer you already know what I'm talking about: those great ideas that basically write themselves.
No, most ideas are either out there ridiculous and will never come to fruition from lack of practicality, or the idea is pretty mundane.
But here's the thing: mundane ideas are fine! In many respects, a writer who can take average ideas and massage them into something of quality is streets ahead of the writer who sits on great ideas, doing nothing with them because they can't decide how to do them justice.
This is what Stranger Things does. It doesn't have an original bone in it’s body - it's a pastiche of Stephen King, John Carpenter, E.T. and The Navigator - but it takes these tried and tested storytelling formulae and quite simply uses them well. It doesn't try to introduce any clever twists or brain-melting ideas. It knows the cake it wants to bake from the beginning and sets about baking it to the best of its ability, with no crazy ingredients or wacky recipe in the mix. It's a tried-and-tested formula that it executes to perfection.
It is a show that is very comfortable in its own skin. Because it knows what it wants to achieve from the beginning and how it will get there. It doesn't wrestle or struggle with those clever, high-concept ideas or complicate itself to the point that it needs to backpedal or hit a big reset button like so many shows do these days (see my showcase for Sherlock for a prime example of this). So the pacing is on point: no episode feels like filler or rushed. At no point do we need to have the story stop and have characters explain what the hell’s happening to each other (i.e. The audience). The most mysterious aspects of Stranger Things - the monster and the world of Upside Down - are not over explained and are barely glimpsed until the latter stages of the season. This is a smart move from the creators. Not only does this maintain the sense of mystery and suspense and put you firmly in the shoes of the protagonists who are as unsure of the facts as you are, but it takes advantage of just how...well, unoriginal the monster and the upside down are. Sounds harsh but it isn't meant to be - we’ve already established that originality isn't quality. Instead, because it is thick with the DNA of the many shows that came before it and inspired it, the audience can paint a picture in their own minds of what they believe the monster or the upside down are.
Complementing the smooth pacing is the fact that there is no flab or excess in the 10-episode running time. There is no character who serves no purpose, nothing set up that receives no pay-off (notwithstanding questions deliberately left hanging for future seasons), nothing that doesn’t serve the story. The way the multiple sub-plots dovetail together in the final stages of the story is handled with deft skill, without feeling tacked on or ham-fisted. It all flows naturally
And this is why everybody should take note of Stranger Things’ success, especially would-be writers. Because here we have a TV show that aims to do nothing more than tell a darn good story. No outlandish ideas, no ‘ultimate stakes’ with the end of the world looming, no competing with other media for who can shout loudest for the most attention from viewers’ eyeballs and eardrums. No. It instead quietly sets about telling abou the story it wants to as well as it can, regardless of whether it's tropes are cliche or not.
Isn't it wonderful to know that simply great storytelling can still champion everything these days?
Mistakes. Errors. Sins. We love to point them out, don't we? And yes, it is a love. Because despite the faux annoyance folks display when they complain about grammatical hiccups they spot in a book or continuity errors in the make-up department that they spot in a movie, it is in fact a small delight, a thrill. Like when a magician messes up his trick and reveals the corner of the trap door under his feet.
The delight is twofold. First, it's like a peek behind the curtain. The illusion of the fiction slips ever so slightly - not enough to disrupt the experience - but just enough to be noticeable and comedic in effect. This gripping scene of a man dying in the arms of his brother as he utters words of forgiveness with his last breath is disrupted when the boom mic accidentally peeks into view at the bottom of the frame. The serious veers into the absurd so fast you can't help but laugh.
Second, it gives the viewer or reader a small victory, a sense of superiority. In spotting errors and pointing them out to others, that person is essentially trying to establish themselves as better than the creator.
Woah. Pretty strong claim, yes? Perhaps, but I wish to make two things clear here: first, that I'm not talking about solicited or constructive criticism - the act of highlighting mistakes with the purpose of making the book or film better. That is always welcome and wanted. And sometimes, yes, some things do deserve to be ripped apart, because it's clear there is no respect for the audience in this piece or from the creator.
No, I'm talking about the rabid nitpicking sort of error-spotting. The kind that's really accelerated over the years. You've seen it. You can't move through YouTube for people making videos where they highlight a strand of hair in a red circle, throwing in a dirty great arrow for effect, pointing out this minuscule mistake that you wouldn't even notice unless you were - and this is the key point - actively looking for them.
And that's my chief concern. It has become such an ingrained hobby - and don't say it isn't a hobby, if you dislike mistakes so much then why do you actively seek them out? - that people will fixate on the inconsequential errors and then walk away decrying the poor quality of the film, book or TV show. This is despite not focusing on the real meat in front of them - the story, the characters, the themes. It's like going to watch a great play but you mock it because you can see masking tape on the wall. Some people will dismiss the thrust of this article not because they have a constructive argument against it, but because they've already spotted the spelling and grammatical errors (deliberately) scattered throughout and dismiss it without further thought. And with our ever-increasing interconnectivity, people are racing to pile on top of that book, that movie, to spot the most mistakes and be the fastest at doing so, to feel the most superior.
This has to stop. When a young aspiring filmmaker or author sees an otherwise solid piece of entertainment picked apart and ridiculed, what is he or she supposed to think? Believe me, newcomers to creative fields are already paranoid enough of making mistakes, they don't need any more convincing that the field is teeming with carnivores ready to pounce. We run the risk of scaring off our future greats because the perceived learning curve is too steep, that perfection is expected from the very beginning. And if the established directors and authors of the day can't get it right, how can they possibly hope to? There are many reasons why there are so few original movies coming from Hollywood these days, and this is one of them.
Oh, you think they're precious little snowflakes who could do with a dose of the real world? Thanks for the clever rebuttal. Look, imagine someone is criticizing your 1-year-old child. Before you jump up and say that you can’t possibly equate a small child to a book, well to the creator it is. That book they’ve been working on takes months, possibly years to cultivate, to grow, to attend you. Your project is as precious as a child. And then some strangers begin throwing superficial criticisms around about your child: their hair, how they have an orange juice spill on their shirt, how they can’t enunciate the word ‘Mama’ properly...how would you feel? How would you react?
This is how a new writer can view the landscape before them. They have motivation and drive, and they know that criticism comes with the job, but when they see just how destructive and cynical their potential audience can be, combined with how difficult it can be to get recognition from even one person (ask an aspiring writer how many rejection letters they have) and some will surely give up before they start. Why go through all that hassle?
It’s even harder for authors. Filmmakers, at least, collaborate with a small army of people. The collaborative effort means that errors and problems are more likely to be spotted and corrected in the production process. This, I suppose, makes the pointing out of issues in film more justifiable - how did that get by so many people without being seen? - but spare a thought for the author who works solo for most of, if not the whole process. Professional editors are not cheap, meaning that for the wannabe writer the first step on the ladder means showing your work to an audience when it’s been edited by yourself. And you’ve done your best to eradicate as many errors as possible, but it’s really hard to spot problems in things you made, especially if it’s your third or fourth read-through. And when the criticism rolls in, there’s no team to share the blame with. It’s all loaded on one pair of shoulders.
Once again, I’m not talking about meaningful, constructive critique. Pointing out structural issues, inconsistencies in character, anachronisms - things that are making the story less good than it could be - then by all means, critique away. And sure, point out spelling mistakes and grammatical hiccups, but mix it up with positive feedback too. The author, if they are sensible, will be all ears. I’m talking about taking superficial potshots for personal satisfaction.
It’s fun, gratifying even, to poke holes in something, especially if it’s been so obviously, cynically produced. But let’s remember that there are human beings behind the thing you’re poking holes in. Be fair. Be empathetic. Help that creator to grow. It’s more work and less exciting, but that gratification you’re seeking will come in time when that author comes back to you with a finer, stronger end product that you had a part in helping to build. And to think, you nearly scared them away!
Off the Shelf
Here I share my ideas, musings and advice on the writing process. I also analyse some of my own writing for examples to show how I work.
Here I will show off of some of my favorite good and great stories, gushing lovingly over why I adore them and why you should too. I will also show you the other side of the spectrum: bad examples of stories and what we can learn from them.